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An enrollment policy built on shaky ground

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

​The School Reform Commission’s enrollment policies, and the premises on which they are based, are at the heart of its efforts to improve city schools and student achievement. For that reason, they merit careful analysis.

For the last several years, the SRC has promoted an increase in "high-performing" or "high-quality" seats with the unstated premise that student performance is determined by the quality of classrooms and schools that students attend. And for the last decade, the SRC has supported the development of a portfolio of schools, including District and charter schools, to expand parent choice in school selection.

To facilitate the choice process, the SRC has recently been considering a "universal enrollment" system, which would allow parents to complete a single application for District, charter, and parochial schools (and possibly private schools) that they would like their child to attend.

In the discussion that follows, I hope to provide some perspective on the SRC’s enrollment strategies, a discussion that may have increased importance because of recent statements by SRC chair nominee Bill Green.

Green is quoted in the Inquirer as saying, “I am a strong believer that quality educational ‘seats’ need to be provided to the schoolchildren of Philadelphia as quickly as possible … And I am indifferent as to whether or not that is in a public school or public charter school, etc.”

I bring a variety of perspectives to this discussion as a former Philadelphia principal and central office administrator, school superintendent in New Jersey, and now university professor. I’ve been directly involved in student enrollment management, including recruiting, admissions and transfer, as well as policy development and implementation, and I’ve also had the opportunity to study the effects of various enrollment policies.

The big question

Embedded in the enrollment policy debate is a larger question of whether manipulating enrollment policy creates the appearance of doing something, of “fixing” schools, while avoiding the real issues of adequate funding and program quality.

Let me be clear from the outset. In my view, if the SRC were truly serious about improving student achievement and increasing the number of quality seats, it would be advocating for proven reforms, including preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, small classes in early grades, quality teachers, stable and competent school leadership, support for teacher learning, rich and engaging curricula, and trusting relationships among students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

Which is to say, as directly as possible, that as the enrollment policy debate continues, and District finances and charter school expansion dominate the news, it’s important to keep in mind that our leaders are not talking about what would make a real difference for the city’s public school students.

That said, taking a closer look at District enrollment practices may help clarify what’s been happening and what it means for the city’s kids.

Enrollment policies and practices

Manipulating enrollment through school design and admission processes has been a District strategy for decades. Take, for example, the desegregation efforts of the ’70s and ’80s. Over time, the rationale for school enrollment policies has variously been intended to:

  • Attract students of different races, ethnicities, abilities, and social classes, so that students can learn how to relate to those “different” from them. Engineering and Science High, Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and Science Leadership Academy are examples.
    Improve student achievement by eliminating “low-performing” schools and requiring their students to attend “better” schools, and concurrently, pressuring schools to improve their performance so they are attractive to prospective students. The federal Race to the Top initiative and the District’s Facilities Master Plan are both examples of this strategy.
    Maintain strong neighborhood schools with active parent support, particularly when the intent is to attract middle-class families who might otherwise opt for private schools or the suburbs – Penn Alexander, Meredith, and the Center City District exemplify this strategy.

As the varied purposes suggest, the District has had an array of recruitment and school-design strategies that both complement and compete with each other. In addition, central administration has exercised greater or lesser control over enrollment decisions depending on the politics and preferences of the moment.

To further complicate the matter, there is a whole second tier of enrollment policies, which might loosely be characterized as “money follows the child,” or entitlement policies. Most important are the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA – Title I) and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These established, in federal law, the notion that children with special needs (poverty, physical, or mental handicap, chronic behavior problems) require additional resources to provide them a “free and appropriate” education.

As programs for these students have evolved, they have created a secondary market for children considered "difficult to educate." Schools willing or required to enroll these students have the incentive of additional money, staffing, and external supports. But because schools are expected to ensure that “needy” students pass state tests, there are also negative incentives for enrolling them. As a result, Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools enroll a disproportionally high share of students with special needs, and schools with selection criteria enroll a smaller share.

On high-quality seats

With that background, consider the SRC’s "high-quality seats" strategy. This strategy has at least three inherent problems in my view. The first is obvious: the assumption that the supply of "high-quality seats" is sufficient to accommodate students who are low performing or who attend low-performing schools. In his recent announcement that the District would not close any schools for 2014-15, Superintendent William Hite made it clear that this was not the case.

The second problem is that the strategy avoids the brutal truth that family income is far and away the best predictor of student performance in the United States. So unless students from low-income families are assigned to classrooms with children from middle and high-income families, access to "high-quality seats" will be limited.

The third problem is the SRC’s claim that school quality can be improved without additional resources — particularly small class size, good teachers, and good principals. But the SRC’s approach to PFT contract negotiations and school staffing and the high degree of leadership turnover in District schools indicate that the District is putting economy before quality.

What’s a "high-quality seat" in Philadelphia?

The deep problem with the "high-quality seats" strategy is that good seats, whether in District or charter schools, are in very short supply. That is best illustrated by looking at the Notebook’s 2013 fall guide to high school options, designed to help parents and students navigate the myriad choices now available.

There are 79 high schools listed in the guide: 17 special admission, eight citywide admission, 20 neighborhood, and 34 charter. The summary data table allows ready comparison of specific schools and of categories of schools. What is striking in examining the tables is how close the relationship is between “percentage of low-income students” and scores on SATs, which are used for college admissions.

Even more striking is that only two of the 79 schools have combined SAT verbal and math scores that exceed the national average — Masterman and Central. The highest-performing charter school is MaST, which not coincidentally has among the lowest percentage of low-income students and smallest percentage of African American and Latino students. In other words, the notion of "high-quality seats" is very much a relative term, because the only truly high-performing seats in the city are at Central and Masterman.

The shifting Philadelphia school market

There is a long-standing alternative for parents seeking high-quality options for their children’s schooling. Philadelphia has a tradition of private and parochial schools that historically have educated about a third of the city’s children. In other words, there has always been school choice for those who could afford it. But enrollment patterns in Philadelphia have been shifting since the mid-’70s, when the District’s desegregation efforts appear to have provoked white flight to the suburbs, and public and parochial school enrollments began to decline.

Charter schools didn’t enter the picture until the late ’90s, and their growth has accelerated in the last several years as federal, state, and local policies have promoted school choice and competition. Charters were created on the premise that student achievement would improve as parents sought demonstrably effective schools. But in Philadelphia, that has not been the case. Charter schools as a whole have done neither better nor worse than their traditional counterparts in improving student achievement. Parents here have opted for charter schools because they perceive them as convenient, safe, and orderly.

An unintended consequence of charter schools’ development, in Philadelphia and in other large cities, is the devastating effect on parochial schools that historically educated a high proportion of non-Catholic students as part of their mission to serve the poor. Given the choice of free charter schools or parochial schools with low tuitions, city parents have chosen charter schools, accelerating the closure of parochial schools and explaining, in part, why the charter school enrollments have increased more than District school enrollments have declined.

What about vouchers?

In 2012, the Pennsylvania legislature authorized the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program that permits parents of students attending low-achieving schools to get scholarships (tuition vouchers) that can be used at participating "better" schools. (The list of these schools on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website indicates that to date almost all have religious affiliations.) Although the approach of school choice and "high-quality seats" that the SRC has pursued has not, to this point, included vouchers as a component, that possibility remains a very real one.

It is likely that high-quality seats and school choice will continue to be at the center of the SRC’s efforts at improving student achievement. And the state and local political landscape suggests that both elected and appointed officials will support that strategy, in large part because it doesn’t cost much. Will this approach improve student achievement, reduce the dropout rate, increase college access, and career readiness? Not likely. If the SRC were truly serious about improving student achievement and increasing the number of high-quality seats, it would be advancing proven reforms.

James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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